When you think of a nuclear meltdown, a lifeless wasteland likely comes to mind — a barren environment of strewn ashes and desolation. Yet nearly 30 years after the disaster at the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union, a very different reality has long since taken root.
In and around Chernobyl, wildlife now teems in a landscape long abandoned by humans. The area has been largely vacant of human life since 31 people died in the catastrophe and cleanup.
"It's well-established that when you create large reserves and protect wildlife from everyday human activities, wildlife generally tend to thrive," says Jim Beasley, a researcher at the Warnell School of Forestry at the University of Georgia.
He and a team of fellow researchers embarked on a study of the Chernobyl exclusion zone — specifically, the sector that rests on the Belarusian side of the Ukraine-Belarus border. They aimed to better understand how animal populations had been affected by the world's worst nuclear meltdown.
"Our study specifically looked at mid- to large-size mammals," Beasley says, "so everything from hare- or rabbit-sized animals, wild boar, moose — everything up to apex predators like wolves."
They wanted to see just how resilient these mammals were — and their data came back with a clear pattern: populations have resisted decline, and in many cases even flourished.
"None of our three hypotheses postulating radiation damage to large mammal populations at Chernobyl were supported by the empirical evidence," Beasley and his co-authors concluded in a paper they published recently on the topic.
Now, that's not to say the animals themselves are healthy or not. Beasley is careful to note that their study did not look at particular health effects in the mammals. And, as for humans, Beasley cautions that we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves there, either. His findings have little to say about how safe the area is for humans to return.
"Humans are much more long-lived than wild animals," he says. "So I would be cautious to extrapolate those findings to humans."
But they did come to one clear conclusion.
"What our study does suggest is that even if there are potential subtle genetic effects" from the lingering radioactivity in the area, Beasley says, "those effects are greatly overshadowed by the impacts humans have on the environment."
In other words, it may be a radioactive wasteland, still unsafe for humans, the simple fact of their absence has helped open the door for other mammals to flourish.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When we think of a nuclear meltdown, we think of a lifeless wasteland, just ashes and desolation. But Jim Beasley of the Warnell School of Forestry at the University of Georgia has just published a paper about the wildlife that now teems in and around Chernobyl, nearly 30 years after the nuclear accident there. The area's been vacant and abandoned since 31 people died in the catastrophe and cleanup. Jim Beasley joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.
JIM BEASLEY: My pleasure.
SIMON: So what animals would we see?
BEASLEY: So our study specifically looked at mid- to large-sized mammals so everything from hare, or rabbit-sized animals, wild boar, moose up to apex predators, like wolves.
SIMON: And forgive me if this sounds flip, but do they - I mean, do they have two heads? Did they glow in the dark?
BEASLEY: (Laughter) No, certainly not. Of all the animals that I've seen there, they've all looked very healthy.
SIMON: Does this mean human beings could return and be healthy?
BEASLEY: I think our data don't really lend themselves to addressing that specific question for a number of reasons. Humans are much more long-lived than wild animals, so I would be cautious to extrapolate those findings to humans.
SIMON: How do you explain that this area, that I think most of us consider to be a wasteland, has so much wildlife?
BEASLEY: It was well-established that when you create large reserves and protect wildlife from everyday human activities, wildlife, generally, tend to thrive. So our study did not look at any specific health effects of animals. I think that's important to note. But what our study does suggest is that even if there are potential, subtle genetic effects, those effects are greatly overshadowed by the impacts humans have on the environment.
SIMON: So whatever lingering dangers there may or may not be, the animals in the area are thriving because we're not around - human beings.
BEASLEY: Yes, exactly.
SIMON: Mr. Beasley, would it be dangerous to hunt these animals for food?
BEASLEY: So the European economic commission has come up with levels that they deem appropriate for human consumption. Most of the animals that I've seen do exceed that, and some greatly exceed that. So the animals there still are very contaminated, so they would not be appropriate for eating.
SIMON: Could there be tourism?
BEASLEY: My understanding is that there is some tourism now in the Ukraine side of the zone. So the exclusion zone, it's 30 kilometers zone, and roughly half of that is in Belarus. And roughly half is in Ukraine. And my understanding is there is some activity, or much more activity, in Ukraine, whereas there is much less in Belarus.
SIMON: Would there be some concern if these animals began to migrate out of that zone?
BEASLEY: I wouldn't be overly concerned about any potential effects to surrounding populations. Where there could be some potential issues would be in terms of human-wildlife conflicts. So wild boar cause agricultural damage. Anywhere you have wolves and livestock, there's the potential for conflicts. But all these are manageable conflicts, and the benefit of having large populations in an area, in general, greatly exceed the costs of those more localized incidents.
SIMON: Jim Beasley, researcher at the School of Forestry at the University of Georgia. Thanks so much for being with us.
BEASLEY: Thank you. It was my pleasure talking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.